My youngest daughter, just a week or so from turning 4, recently introduced me to her future husband. His name is Otto, and she describes him as “bigger than me, and he has dark hair.” He’s an older man–6 years old, to be exact–which apparently qualifies him as a “grown-up.” We’ve heard about him non-stop for a couple weeks. The young couple has wedding plans, but not until she turns 7, so we’ve got some time.
Otto’s had a pretty exciting life…for a six-year-old. He’s been to both Japan and Mexico (which happen to be the only foreign countries my daughter can name–probably because we tend to favor their culinary contributions to our society). He speaks English, Spanish, and another language that I can’t even spell. He’s smart, good-looking, “not a bad guy,” and emphatically “not a monkey.” So although I’m a little hurt that I’ve been [temporarily] displaced as her number-one man, I suppose she could have done worse.
The problem with Otto is that we’ve never seen him. My daughter hasn’t seen him either (reportedly because “he likes to hide a lot”). But if you listened to her talk, you’d be convinced that she knows him well. She can describe his appearance, his accomplishments, and his behavior. Ask her any question about Otto, and she’ll have an answer in seconds–with only the occasional upward glance and mischievous grin to blow her cover. (We’ll work on that before her debut on the World Poker Tour.)
Otto isn’t our first experience with an invisible friend, but he’s certainly the most detailed. His predecessor, Mr. Nobody, seemed to serve mostly as a scapegoat for the actions of others, and was asked to find a new home several months ago after repeat infractions of the family rules. If your child’s imaginary friend is a trouble-maker like Mr. Nobody, don’t worry–many of them are. But do be sure to make it clear that all members of the family (even the invisible ones) are subject to the house rules. If your child’s imaginary friend makes a mess, make the two of them work together to clean it up. If he fails to reform, kick his butt out.
So what do we really know about imaginary friends? Not nearly as much as we know about a lot of other things. There have been a few studies over the years with some conflicting results as to whether kids that have invisible friends are actually more creative, smarter, or better adjusted than kids who don’t. A couple studies suggest that children with imaginary friends develop better language skills or emotional understanding, but a more recent review of studies about invisible friends didn’t show much of a difference. We do know that they are extremely common–the majority of children have them, typically between the ages of 3 and 7. (If your teenager hears voices telling her to kill the cat, that’s a different problem.) And interestingly, while boys tend to create only male imaginary friends, girls don’t show much gender bias.
If you happen to have a friend like Otto living in your home, there’s no need to worry. Imaginary friends are an extension of pretend play and a totally normal developmental phenomenon. Far from being a cause for concern, they are actually a reflection of your child’s creative faculties. Whether the make-believe companion will result in higher SAT scores or college scholarships is unclear, but we do know he won’t do much harm. Imaginary friends don’t indicate that your child is lacking in real-life social interactions. She’s not hallucinating (probably). She doesn’t have dissociative identity disorder. She’s just pretending–and that’s a good thing.